I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Getting Past the Post


A poll of polls published in The Guardian last week in advance of the May 7th general election in the United Kingdom saw the Labour and Conservative parties winning exactly equal numbers of seats in the House of Commons.

What kind of government might such a result produce? First, it would leave both large parties unable to govern without allies, whether in a formal coalition or through some sort of pact which offered parliamentary support in return for specified policy concessions or public spending commitments. Second, the key power broker would be the Scottish National Party, which has said it will not support another Tory government but that it might, under some circumstances, support a Labour one. As The Guardian points out however, on the figures we are currently dealing with – and they could well change significantly between now and May – Labour would require not just the support of the SNP, expected to be a major force, but also that of the Liberal Democrats, or what will be left of them on May 8th. The nationalists, however, who seem to have Labour very much on the run in Scotland, may not feel that it is in their interests to bail them out at Westminster.

It is in this political context that the playwright Sir David Hare has made an intervention (again in The Guardian) to coincide with a revival of his 1993 play The Absence of War, which featured a Labour Party leader, George Jones, who most people at the time felt bore a strong resemblance to Neil Kinnock. Jones believes, as one can be quite sure Kinnock also did, that the Labour Party is “the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people’s lives for the good”, yet he is hemmed in by party strategists who are continually urging caution on him; and still he finds that, as the election approaches, he is lagging in the opinion polls. As a last throw of the dice he is advised by close colleagues to jettison his previous caution and speak from the heart, to make what is called a “killer speech”, eloquently restating the moral message of socialism – only to find that when he makes the attempt he no longer has it in him.

Labour lost the 1992 general election (though it gained forty-two seats and the Tories lost forty; interestingly, the Conservative share of the popular vote was 41.9 per cent, that of Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined 52.2 per cent). Those who were around at the time may remember that the party leader did indeed make a “killer speech”, though not in the positive sense of the term: at a huge – and hugely choreographed ‑ mass rally in Sheffield on April 1st, a week before the election, Kinnock somewhat embarrassingly gave full rein to the natural exuberance of his personality, addressing supporters with the repeated cry “We’re alright!” (alternatively “Well a’right!”). A nation cringed. Labour had gone into April with a lead in the polls, which seemed to collapse in the final week before the election. Whether this was principally due to the Sheffield rally, to the right-wing press’s scurrilous campaigning against the party and its leader, or to something else entirely remains a matter of dispute.

Kinnock resigned after the defeat, as did deputy leader Roy Hattersley. Electoral failure must be paid for in politics. Yet Kinnock had done the party some service, bringing it a considerable distance back along the road to electability after its 1983 nadir, a process that was to be continued by John Smith (only briefly, given his early sudden death) and, in what many of an Old Labour (and not necessarily left Labour) persuasion would regard as a significant overcorrection, by Tony Blair.

Kinnock came to see The Absence of War some time after his defeatlater describing the experience as “the three most uncomfortable hours of my life”. Another visitor was Tony Blair, who resolved, Hare writes, that should he ever become party leader what had happened to George Jones (or to Neil Kinnock) would not happen to him. And this, it seems, he hoped to ensure by giving the claims of Money and the claims of Justice equal billing in the refashioned enterprise that was New Labour. Did this balancing act work? Hare rather evades that question: “ … the messianic flaws of character that led to Blair’s epochal mishandling of the Iraq invasion left the jury out on whether his domestic experiment could ever succeed”. But why, one wonders, would they do that? Surely his domestic achievements could be judged on their merits?

The topical hook Hare uses for his Guardian article is the current plight (if plight it is) of Ed Miliband, facing into an election in May against a quite unpopular government but uncertain of success. Hare, it seems, wants him to make a killer speech: “ … the question [he asserts] you most often hear asked of Miliband, in tones of increasing frustration, is ‘Why, at a time when the public most needs it, can Ed not speak in a way that reaches the public?’ Why can he not shoot at Cameron’s open goal? Why can he not, in the words of one veteran Labour MP in the play, ‘get up and take the whole rotten thing on’?”

In his 1998 book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, John O’Farrell offered a vignette which sought to give readers an idea of the kind of people who constituted the membership of the average Labour party branch in London during the long pre-Blair years. Invited back to someone’s flat after a meeting, comrades would be asked what refreshment they would like: there would be a black Ceylon tea, a glass of still water ‑ not from the tap if possible ‑ a green tea, two camomile teas, one ginger and lemon tea, two decaff coffees, one with a little skimmed milk, and a glass of hot water. And these, O’Farrell reflected, were the people who were determined to forcefully restore Labour’s claim to speak out for ordinary people.

Blair, for all that he went too far (much too far) in his assurances that Labour was a party that would never discomfit the wealthy, did understand that ringing declarations of socialist principle, though they might have their place, do not do the business electorally. The “real socialists”, after all, had had their go in 1983 when Labour’s manifesto called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, the abolition of the House of Lords, withdrawal from the European Economic Community and a slew of nationalisations of large companies. The result was electoral disaster – the party’s worst result since 1918. Gerald Kaufman memorably called the manifesto that contained these commitments “the longest suicide note in history”. Do we really want to go there again?

Sir David, like our own Fintan O’Toole, thinks that what social democracy is signally lacking and desperately needs is “a narrative”. It is perhaps understandable that the creative artist, or the literary intellectual, may see both life and the business of politics primarily in terms of stories, but our stories will only get us so far, particularly when inconvenient others keep rudely interrupting them. Certainly David Hare poses some interesting and important questions about what social democrats can do in a situation where capital seems to have the upper hand over labour to a greater degree than at any time in the last fifty or sixty years. But it is also noticeable that he does not answer any of the questions he asks. Not his job perhaps, but one might think he would be prepared to cut a little slack to those who are expected to answer questions – questions about their policies ‑ whether they are desirable, whether they will work, whether they can be paid for.

Perhaps it is a residue of socialism’s intellectual origins as a “complete system”, in both its utopian and supposedly scientific forms, that many of its most enthusiastic intellectual adherents, though they will insist they are democratic socialists (which suggests they will be somewhat restricted in the means at their disposal), still vest such confidence in the ideology’s almost magical transformative power. Capitalism is grinding people down, while freedom and choice are illusions or mystifications masking exploitation and ever deepening inequality. And the solution? A new society brought about – which seems to mean created by an act of will ‑ through a “real, vibrant, engaged … democracy that is capable of using the energies and ideas – social, political, economic – of all its citizens”. And there you have it.

But in fact socialism is only one of the ideologies on offer to citizens, and not necessarily the most attractive to everyone. There is also individualism, which, as in the Thatcher years, can be given a populist spin: I work hard for my money and I save and take care of my family; why should a penny of my money go to those who lie about and do nothing – or, worse still, to foreigners? And liberalism: I don’t tell other people what to do; why should they tell me what to do, in my bed or with my money? After all, it’s my money, my life, not the state’s.

The truth is that social democracy and its values (and the same goes for “revolutionary” or “radical” socialism, though that is not at the races in Britain) is in competition with other strong rival ideologies. And there is nothing particularly obvious about its appeal. It is not, pace Sir David Hare, a case of just telling the people out loud and clear what you stand for and then waiting for them to enthusiastically fall in behind. It is quite possible that one of the other political discourses will make more sense to them and socialists, or at least those of them who are wedded to the idea of a free society in which it is legitimate to disagree, will have to get used to that and swallow its implications.

In the impending British general election, Labour will, as usual, receive the support of the people of East Ham and Bootle, Rhondda and Gateshead. And it will, as usual, find no support whatever in Christchurch or Henley, Orpington or Windsor. Its success depends entirely on whether it can win in the middle, in Peterborough, Dover, Harlow or Rugby. That success is less likely to be brought about by someone “getting up and taking the whole rotten thing on” than by its leaders demonstrating an ability to answer the questions that the press or often malicious opponents will repeatedly ask of them.

Would a Labour victory in May matter? Would anything change? Certainly the pressing questions about the apparent inability of political forces to control financial ones will remain under any foreseeable government. But it is equally obvious that most of the people of East Ham, Bootle, Rhondda, Gateshead, Birkenhead, Jarrow, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bradford think that enough things will change to make it worth their while to vote. And perhaps, in the absence of anything more startlingly transformative, that is for the moment sufficient.